Why Not Travel By Train This Summer?
by Caroline Abels
Nearly everything about my recent vacation in Florida
was perfect -- the beaches, wildlife, sunsets, you
name it. My only disappointment? The way I got there.
a plane, as anyone who lives 1,500 miles away would.
Not that anything went wrong; the trip
was pretty stress-free. Instead, I was disappointed
that I couldn’t take a train -- couldn’t
stroll to the Amtrak station in my Vermont hometown,
board a coach car with plush seats, leg room and
picture windows, rumble down the Atlantic coast and
really see America, rather than gazing blankly at
clouds from 30,000 feet.
technically I could have taken the train. But to
reach Fort Myers, I would’ve had to
endure an overnight layover in New York, a 25-hour
train ride to Tampa, and two-hour bus ride. I wanted
to see America, but not lose a third of my vacation
before even arriving at my destination.
It shouldn’t be this way. Americans, known
for technological innovation, shouldn’t have
to be embarrassed that Europe and Asia have faster,
more convenient and reliable passenger rail systems.
Railroad travel was once ubiquitous in the U.S.,
but since the 1950s -- when the automobile and interstate
highway system began replacing it -- passenger rail
here has become a shell of what it once was. Amtrak’s
annual ridership was up 11 percent last year, to
28.7 million (a record), but compare that to the
nearly 650 million passengers taking domestic flights
on American Airlines in 2008.
problem: when it comes to passenger rail, you can’t get there from here. While the U.S.
claims more than 140,000 miles of Class I railroad
line, and freight railroads haul more than 40 percent
of all U.S. freight -- everything from lumber to
vegetables, coal to chemicals, grain to scrap iron
-- Amtrak travels along a mere 21,000 miles of those
lines. As a result, many Americans aren’t even
served by Amtrak today; it doesn’t even go
to Wyoming or South Dakota, to most of Texas, Kentucky,
Tennessee, Idaho or Maine. And on the routes that
do exist, congestion and delays often happen because
Amtrak shares most of its track with freight companies.
insult to injury, our undersized passenger rail
system has been grossly under funded. For decades,
Congress passed bare-bones Amtrak budgets, with fiscal
conservative legislators citing the agency’s
lack of routes and stations as cause to shutdown
the government-owned corporation. Amtrak critics
claim they dislike propping up a transportation system
that should, in their minds, pay its own way.
it’s public funding that budget hawks
are upset about, why do they continue to provide
the airline and auto industries with billions? What’s
more, not a single well-functioning passenger train
system in the world functions without public funding.
of us who love trains and appreciate their ability
to reduce air pollution and cut carbon emissions
know this is a perfect time for passenger rail to
make a comeback. Not only are Americans fed up with
congested highways and airport security lines, they’re
also seeking travel options that reduce foreign oil
dependence and don’t contribute as heavily
to climate change.
Amtrak delivers. In 2008, according to the U.S.
Department of Energy, Amtrak was 18 percent
more fuel efficient than the airlines per passenger
mile, and 24 percent more fuel efficient than cars.
Amtrak has also swapped some diesel locomotives for
electric ones, and trialed a hybrid locomotive. It’s
even testing biodiesel fuel on its Heartland Flyer,
running from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.
High-speed rail too holds promise. In the stimulus
bill passed by Congress in February, $8 billion was
invested in high-speed rail projects that will benefit
both Amtrak and state departments of transportation.
The stimulus also provided $1.3 billion for Amtrak
to rebuild infrastructure and upgrade safety. But
after decades of neglect, Congress must invest far
more if Amtrak is to catch up. Vice President Joe
Biden, who used to commute from Delaware to his Senate
seat in Washington on Amtrak, could be a real advocate
for trains in Congress. But so must we.
Why not see if Amtrak can fit conveniently into
your summer vacation plans? It goes to some great
tourist spots, including San Diego, Orlando, Washington,
and the Rocky Mountains; often the train is cheaper
than the plane. Check for routes and stations at
yet, lobby Congress for new routes and stations
that service your region and hometown. Or recruit
local train lovers and start an advocacy group. If
hundreds of citizens showed up in Congress demanding
passenger train service to Fort Myers, Fla., Cheyenne,
Wyo., or Nashville, Tenn. that would get people’s
It may seem old-fashioned to embrace a mode of transportation
that had its heyday in the 19th century. But progress
sometimes means taking a step back.
Blue Ridge Press
Abels is an independent journalist and editor of
Vermont’s Local Banquet magazine.
Previously she was a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Back to Top